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Overreaction

All my life I’ve been told I overreact and I’m too dramatic, two labels which automatically invalidate my experience, feelings, and any attempt I make to communicate honestly.

Being told we’re overreacting is a sure way to shut us down, especially when we hear it regularly. It makes us question our own experience. It breaks connection and trust. It isolates us in shame.

It’s an insidious form of gaslighting.

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When I went through emotional intelligence coaching, I understood being told I’m dramatic is code for, “Your feelings make me uncomfortable.” It’s not a message about me at all, it’s a message about the person with whom I’m interacting.

As a child, I believed I exaggerated and I was too dramatic. I pushed my feelings down and hid them. I didn’t respond to my own distress. I didn’t ask for help. I trusted no one with my real emotions. I taught myself to become stoic and uncomplaining, to focus on the positive, to carry on no matter what.

My feelings became my enemies. I was deeply ashamed of them. They were bad and wrong and they hurt other people.

Now, decades later, I think a lot about feelings as I struggle with my re-triggered autoimmune disease. I know my current physical pain mirrors my emotional pain, which consists of passionate, intense feelings. Learning to manage those feelings more effectively is a work in progress. I do well with one at a time, but right now I’m overwhelmed with emotion. Emotional overwhelm is the trigger for physical pain. I keep right on keeping on through difficult feelings, but once the anguish is translated into back spasm, I can no longer hide or ignore my pain. Everyone else can see. Everyone else knows. I can’t hide my physical disability.

My body betrays me.

Horrors. I cringe, waiting to be told I’m too dramatic and I overreact. My feelings are wrong. They make others uncomfortable. They’re shameful, immature, crazy. I have nothing to complain about. Others have much harder lives than I do. It’s my business to support, not ask for support.

But my body tells the truth. Physically, everything hurts.

The truth beneath that truth is my heart hurts. I’m scared, I’m angry, I feel alone, I feel supported and horribly vulnerable, I’m excited about new beginnings, I feel guilty and ashamed about struggling, I feel relieved, and I don’t know how to bear my grief, both current and past. But I’m still too distant from my feeling experience to encompass all that, let alone manage it effectively.

Photo by Cristian Newman on Unsplash

So, back pain.

In the middle of this experience, I read an article by Courtney Carver from Be More With Less titled “5 Thoughtful Ways to Help You Underreact.” As you can imagine, it caught my eye.

Every day I think about this list of five strategies, and the difference between overreaction and feelings.

Overreaction is defined as a more emotional response than is warranted. Who decides what kind of an emotional response is warranted? Some people feel things very strongly and vividly; others do not. Certain events and situations trigger deep emotions for all of us. Do any of us have a right to judge another person as overreacting, especially when we can’t possibly know the entirety of their private emotional experience? Certainly, some people appear to overreact frequently, but do we stop to ask ourselves, or them, for more information? What is going on? What is behind the perceived overreaction? What need is crying out to be met? What are the feelings involved in the overreaction?

Feelings are value-neutral raw data we’re all biologically wired to experience. They’re simple. Mad. Sad. Glad. Scared. Ashamed.

We’re largely not in control of the complicated neurological and chemical experience of our feelings. We are able to control how we think about, express, and act out our feelings.

Thoughts and feelings are not the same thing.

I’m familiar with some of the strategies Carver writes about in her piece, but I’ve never seen such a concise and useful list of ways to manage habits of thought leading to “overreaction.”

It’s not our business to be concerned with onlookers who attempt to shut us down because of their own discomfort with feelings. Our business is learning how to refrain from shutting ourselves down or allowing anyone else to do so. Our business is taking care we don’t hurt ourselves as we feel our feelings.

Here’s Carver’s list:

  • Do what you can. Let the rest go.
  • Determine if any action or reaction is useful or effective in the first place. Does this deserve my time and energy?
  • Don’t take anything personally.
  • Distinguish between inside and outside. We can’t control what happens outside us. Our power lies within us.
  • Closely related to the last strategy, if we feel we’re overreacting, what else is going on? Are we sick, hurt, dealing with unfinished feelings or unhealed wounds, struggling with addiction, lonely, tired, hungry? We need to focus on supporting ourselves.

Some people don’t want to deal with feelings, their own or anyone else’s. I understand. Such people will always struggle with someone like me, who feels deeply and expresses vividly. To them, I will always look as though I’m overreacting.

What overreacting means to me, though, is the intensity of my feelings is negatively affecting my health, and I need to find ways to support myself. I don’t want to feel less. I want to feel better.

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Guilt

Courtney Carver from Be More With Less suggests the feeling we call guilt may in fact be discomfort.

What an interesting distinction. I was immediately intrigued.

Guilt is defined as feeling responsible or regretful for a real or perceived offense.

A real or perceived offense.

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If you’re someone like me, you feel almost everything you do and say is some kind of a breach of conduct, especially things like saying no, meeting your own needs, and setting boundaries. This feeling is based on past unhappy/critical/invalidating reactions of others to my actions. If I’ve Failed To Please, I feel guilty. I feel guilty even when I know I’ve done the right thing for myself.

So what if that feeling isn’t guilt at all? What if it’s discomfort?

Changing habits is uncomfortable, no doubt about that. Habits are effortless, especially mental and emotional habits. They feel like our friends. They’ve been with us a long time. We’re attached to them because they’re easy and familiar. Whether or not they’re effective or useful is not the point. How they affect others is of no interest.

They’re easy, and they’re ours.

The thing is, our habits don’t belong to us so much as we belong to them. We can stop them any time, we tell ourselves and everyone else. If we wanted to. But we don’t want to.

So there.

Breaking habits takes intention, focus, and determination. Support helps, but sometimes it’s unavailable.

So, do we feel guilty because we’re making different choices than our habits dictate, or do we feel uncomfortable because we’re making different choices? Making different choices affects those around us, and when things start changing, people get uncomfortable, especially if the change wasn’t their idea. Most people are sure to tell us when we “make” them uncomfortable.

Then the guilt starts.

Maybe discomfort, theirs and/or ours, is a good sign, a sign we’re truly doing the work of change. Maybe the guiltier/more uncomfortable we feel, the more successful we are.

Maybe we shelve the guilt and welcome the discomfort.

Sometimes we all do something we know is wrong and guilt helps us learn and make amends for our choices. Sometimes. Not every day, all day.

Being alive, taking up space, growing, learning, and reclaiming our power and health are not worthy of guilt. Uncomfortable work, yes. An offense, a breach of conduct, a crime, no.

When I feel that old familiar guilt come knocking, I’m going to look at it more closely. Maybe it’s not guilt at all. Maybe it’s just discomfort.

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Parting

I lost a friend two weeks ago.

I have, of course, been thinking about her. She was a friend from my past, a part of my past. I had not seen her or even spoken with her in some time, but she remained in my memory as part of the place I called my home before I came here to Maine.

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Death. The axis around which our lives pivot, and yet what can we say, or think, or even react with that isn’t entirely banal?

Starting, beginning, changing our surroundings and jobs, meeting friends and lovers, having children, reaching milestones, are all obvious, and loud, and exciting. We look ahead to such experiences, strive and work for them.

We forget that all of these involve parting, too. Parting can be so quiet, like a canoe sliding from the land into the early mist on the lake. Hardly a ripple. No fanfare. Just floating soundlessly away into the unknown, while we stand on the shore, watching it disappear.

Sometimes we lie asleep in our beds during the moment of parting, oblivious. We rise, and brush our teeth, and make breakfast, watching the mist burn off the water through our kitchen window, and we realize suddenly someone or something has left us. They’re gone. We didn’t know this was the morning. We didn’t say goodbye. The inescapable moment of parting came and went without us.

Then again, parting can be so subtle we don’t recognize it’s begun. Our gaze is ahead, at the next task, the next goal. But behind us, or off to the side, out of our awareness, the time of parting, long or short, is upon us. The flow of connection has turned to an ebb, and, inexorably, we drift apart from what once moored us.

Someone put my friend on PostHope, an online place for people to schedule visits, write messages, and update on a loved one’s condition. She was unable to communicate herself, but PostHope gave us a place to send our love and support to her and follow her progress.

This was a great gift to me, so far away. I snail mailed a card she will never receive. I posted a message. I read all the updates as they came in, and there was reason for optimism, a possibility for at least partial recovery.

Then, in an idle moment I checked my email and found a message that she had died. I felt all the things we do feel in such moments. Disbelief and denial. Grief. A little later, a sorrowful peacefulness, because she would have been unable to live independently after her illness, and she was a fiercely independent woman.

By Vladimir Gladkov on Unsplash

What do we leave behind when we are gone? We talk about legacies, and children, and brilliant achievements of art or science or service, but what do ordinary people leave? My friend had no money. She had no children or close family. She lived alone. She was not famous.

In the days after her death, many posted words of sorrow and comfort on PostHope. I did not. Her place is no longer my place, and I am a different woman than the one who left. Many of her friends were strangers to me, or nothing more than names I remember from my time there. My heart is too full, and I was not ready.

I do not want to talk about her. I want to know she is still there, teaching art to children, taking a spin class, working in the art gallery, painting, dancing, and caring for the homeless cats who came far and wide for food, shelter, and love. I want to know she’s giving massages, making her herbal salves, wildcrafting sage for smudge sticks, and cooking.

But she’s gone now. Her house, which was the house in which I raised my sons before she bought it from me, is empty. She’ll never paint another picture or make another jar of salve.

I did not know, the last time I saw her and said good-bye, that it was forever. I still have a picture of that evening, but it’s color on a flat sheet of paper, and unsatisfying.

My memories are better. I still smile when I remember how we danced together, whooping and laughing, and how she tore off her shirt and danced in her sports bra as we gave ourselves to the music and our blood ran swift and hot.

I remember, too, how fascinated I was with her authenticity. She liked to talk. She was loud, and opinionated, and without tact. Her blunt honesty made people around her squirm sometimes. As a lifelong people pleaser, peacemaker, and soft-spoken fawner, she appalled me frequently, but she also amused and amazed me. How could anyone risk being so real? She taught me about living unapologetically true to oneself.

My friend had a big, soft, generous heart. She was a woman who loved and worked tirelessly for the community. That community will be less vital, less challenging, less interesting, and quieter without her.

Death is banal. But life isn’t. Hers was a beautiful life. She gave what she had to give without counting the cost. She loved. She lived without holding anything back. Now we have parted. She’s gone into the mist, beyond my sight.

Good-bye, my dear friend.

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Doing it For You

I don’t like commercial television and rarely watch it, but I caught a muted ad one morning this week from the corner of my eye that intrigued me. I saw Passiton.org on the screen and looked it up.

Photo by Hian Oliveira on Unsplash

I encourage you to go explore this site for yourself. It’s a treasure trove of beautiful videos, billboards, articles, and stories about real people. It’s positive, optimistic, and heartfelt. One of the videos, titled Caring and set to lyrics by Bryan Adams, particularly touched me.

For some time, as I go about my life, I’ve thought about the practice of love. It’s a hard subject to write about because I don’t have good language, but it’s the idea that loving and caring for the people I come into contact with is a kind of substitute for loving my, well, loved ones.

I told you the language was inadequate!

Sometimes our loved ones are dead or otherwise unavailable for a healthy relationship, or unable to accept or reciprocate our love for them. I’ve suffered decades of emotional pain over my inability to successfully communicate my love to some of the people in my life. I realize now love is a two-way street. Some of us, and I count myself among them, have a hard time accepting or receiving love, no matter how well it’s communicated.

Let’s just say the basic communication and reciprocity of love isn’t always there. We call this unrequited love, or “skinny” love. When I search the Internet, however, romantic unrequited love is the only topic I can find useful information on, and that’s not what I’m thinking about.

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I have many times wondered, bitterly, what the point is of having such a loving heart, if the people I care about most are unable to receive my love.

Since I began my current job working in a rehab pool facility three years ago, I’ve been vividly aware that making positive contributions to others is in some ways a substitute for my inability to share love with the people to whom I cannot make this contribution, for whatever reason.

Sometimes I imagine a cosmic balance of giving love to others. If we’re unable to reach our closest connections with our love, we can give it to someone who is able to benefit from it. We may be no more than an acquaintance or professional in their lives, but love is love, and most of us recognize it when it’s extended, though we may not be skilled at accepting it with grace.

Perhaps, at the same time, my loved ones are receiving love they can accept and recognize from someone. Someone who substitutes for me.

When I say love, I’m not thinking about a single idea. I think of love as a container for many things: tolerance, respect, compassion, kindness, patience, presence, service.

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This is not a new idea. Stephen Stills famously sang about it in “Love the One You’re With,” and Bryan Adams sings about it in video above, which opened me up to the feeling of unrequited love, the grief and anguish of it, and this substitution method of easing its pain.

I won’t amputate my ability and willingness to love, even if it’s unwanted or unwelcome in the places I most want to practice it. What I can do is step sideways, turn aside, and share it with those I come in contact with, those who can benefit from it, those who will receive it. In this way, my love becomes an offering to my loved ones, my community, myself, and the world. Everything I do, I do for you, for them, for myself. For all of us.

My daily crime.

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Pleasing Fear

My first post on this blog was about pleasing people. It surprised me, how easy it was to break that habit, once I made up my mind. I still slip into the old pattern of pleasing when I’m not paying attention, but I can even smile now (sometimes) when people express outrage because I Failed To Please. It’s not my job to live up to any expectations but my own.

Photo by Volkan Olmez on Unsplash

Ah, there’s the rub. My own expectations, internalized from years of external expectations, can be crippling.

Along with the rest of the country, we are sweltering here in Maine, with heat indices over 100 degrees and the big three H’s: haze, heat, and humidity. Relief is on the way, but right now the only sensible thing to do is hole up with my window AC unit rattling and clunking, shut the blinds, and stay quiet.

Impossible to sleep without AC in my attic, with the temperature and humidity running neck-in-neck. I’m grateful for the cooling unit, and it’s noisy. I learned when I moved to Maine from Colorado the combination of cooled air and high humidity confuse the body. I need a sheet to protect myself from the blowing cool air. But the instant I pull up the sheet, I start gently steaming in my damp bed. Sheet on. Sheet off. Sheet on. Sheet off. Whirr … clunk … whirr … roar … clunk … whirr … goes the cycling air conditioner.

I lay awake during the night, tossing and turning and thinking about all the things I needed to do today, all the things I didn’t do yesterday, and how, and why, and how quickly, and in what order. I thought about carrying dishwater to the garden and prepping for this week’s swim lessons. I thought about the books I’m writing, my new website, this week’s blog post, and housework. I thought about the gardening I’m not finding time to do, switching from 5-lb to 3-lb hand weights and doing more reps, and the challenges my friends face in their private lives.

I felt fear, and I thought fearful thoughts.

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I know much of what drives me is fear. It occurred to me my response to fear feels exactly like my cringing, cowering, I’ll-show-you-my-belly-and-be-a-good-dog-if-you’ll-only-love-me people pleasing.

I’ve never noticed that before.

Much of my behavior is unconsciously driven by a desire to propitiate fear. Speeding, perfectionism, toxic positivity, trying well past the point I should have turned away, finishing tasks quickly rather than well, judging my worth in terms of doing rather than being, the list goes on. Some part of me believes if I do it right, find a way to work harder or be a better person, fear will go away and I’ll be secure, happy, beloved.

I recognize the taste and smell of that belief. It’s the same one I thought I’d discarded when I wrote that first blog post.

I’m still pleasing, but now I’m pleasing fear rather than people.

Maybe the desperate people pleasing I’ve engaged in has really been about fear all along. If I don’t please you, you won’t love me. If I don’t please you, you won’t take care of me. If I don’t please you, you won’t be proud of me. If I don’t please you, you’ll leave me.

What I absolutely know about trying to please is it doesn’t work. People pleasing increased my fear and insecurity rather than diminishing it. It kept me squarely where the blows landed … and landed … and landed.

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Pleasing fear. Not gonna happen. No matter what I do, no matter how hard I try, no matter how much I “succeed,” it will want more, or different. Fear will never be satisfied. Ever.

Fear. Danger. Pain. Threat. The specifics of our fear are unimportant. What keeps me awake Monday night might be a different list than what keeps me awake Friday night. It all boils down to danger, pain, threat. What I fear now, in my 50s, is different than the nameless fears of my childhood.

But the fear itself is the same, the same feeling, the same texture, the same merciless driver.

I need to find a different way to manage it than trying to please.

Psychology has identified four responses to trauma: freeze, flee, fawn (show excessive compliance), or fight.

I can’t hide under the bed and freeze or flee from internalized fear. Fawning is people pleasing. What’s left? Fight.

Here’s something I can do!

The first step in fighting is to know one’s adversary, and emotional intelligence has taught me fear can be an advantage, a friend. I don’t want to eradicate my ability to feel fear. My fear, though, has grown into a monster, distorted, invasive, choking.

All that gardening I can’t get to? Maybe I need to do some internal weeding, pruning, and clearing this summer.

Is fear going to continue to use me, or am I going to master it?

If not now, when?

My daily crime.

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Fantasy or Reality?

I recently read a thought-provoking piece by Patrick Rhone about faith, fear, and facts. I’ve written before about my bewilderment concerning people who don’t want to know. This writer suggests fear is the root of such behavior.

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Fear. It’s so mundane. It’s so extremely powerful. It’s such an extraordinary tool for manipulation.

Rhone asserts faith is frequently more powerful than facts. I might have doubted this once, but after the last four and a half years I agree. We continue to play out the conflict between those who are fact- and science-based and those who are not, especially in social media, steadily becoming more divided and disconnected as each side polarizes further.

We are evolved to experience feelings, and fear in particular is an important evolutionary advantage.

I think of faith as a spiritual connection, and we’re evolved, as social, conscious beings, to connect. Connection is a primary human need.

It seems to me a balance of faith, fear, and facts is optimal for navigating through life.

Where does the balance go wrong?

It goes wrong when we deify a misinformed or dishonest person. When we misplace our faith, in other words. We accept someone’s version of reality, their ideology, their beliefs, without question. Sometimes we do it because we believe they have power we need. Sometimes we do it out of fear. Sometimes we do it because we have no self-confidence; we feel powerless to think and learn for ourselves.

The balance goes wrong if we fear our fear and are unable to manage it. Fear becomes so consuming we’ll do anything for relief, including refuse to deal with facts that scare us.

So we develop faith in something – anything – that makes us feel better and relieves our fear.

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Perhaps our problem is not literacy, or education, or access to resource, or discerning fact from fantasy, but simply our inability to cope with fear.

Fear is a feeling. Managing feelings effectively and appropriately is emotional intelligence.

During my lifetime, I’ve watched our culture become increasingly inauthentic as we consumers demand more and better ways to live in a fantasy world. Role playing games, superhero movies, digital image manipulation, porn, virtual reality tech and special effects allow us to sink into illusion.

Over Memorial Day weekend I did an experiment. I installed a free hidden objects game on my laptop to see what it was like.

It was a big file and took several minutes to download. When I opened it, it covered my whole screen, corner to corner. I couldn’t see my task bar or clock. There was no obvious way to exit; I used the Escape button. The graphics were colorful, animated, attractive, and interesting. A pop-up suggested I use headphones to fully experience the sound. Constant pop-ups urged me to join social media communities playing the game. Constant pop-ups advertised other games (paid) I could play, or pressured me to purchase tools and tokens that would make me a better, faster, more successful player in the “free” game I downloaded.

Free, yes. Want to compete successfully? Want to win? Now you have to buy things!

By the way, if you play every day you get extra points!

The game was cluttered. It provided constant validation and reinforcement. The characters were good-looking, well-dressed and Caucasian. Beautiful food and drink, jewels, and true love were heavily emphasized. One collects points and objects and advances in levels. You don’t have to search for what you need, though, if you’re feeling fatigued. You can simply buy what you need.

The puzzles were timed, of course, which made them a lot less fun for me. Although one plays alone, the competitive aspects were continually reinforced.

The reviews of the game say things like “Beautiful!” and “Addictive!”

Because, you know, addiction is a good thing.

Photo by Patrick Brinksma on Unsplash

I played for a couple of hours. During those hours I didn’t invest in health, happiness, resource , resilience, or my own power. I wasn’t present in the real world.

I also didn’t think about climate change, politics, my job, or getting the car into the shop for brake work.

My feelings were numbed. I wasn’t afraid, but I wasn’t anything else, either.

When I exited the software, I felt as though I’d eaten a bag of jelly beans. I uninstalled the game Tuesday morning.

Have we become a culture that favors illusion over real life? Do we prefer fantasy, as long as it makes us feel “good,” entertains us, or distracts us? Do we prefer being led and manipulated to thinking for ourselves and forging our own paths?

I feel sad and scared after this experiment. If we don’t choose to live in the real world and deal with facts, we have no hope of solving the challenges and problems facing us, from maintaining our cars to managing climate change.

Fear helps us survive. The feeling tells us we must take action. If we refuse to feel fear, or respond to it, we will be deselected.

Facts can be inconvenient and unpleasant, but refusing to deal with them is like refusing to deal with fear. They don’t disappear if we deny them. Nothing can be solved or learned if we refuse to acknowledge facts.

Reality endures. Truth and clarity are powerful. Illusion lies. It might be seductive for a time. Illusion might pretend to be power. In the end, however, it’s empty. It only takes and weakens. It enslaves us, confuses us, and steals our power. It increases our fear while pretending to relieve it.

Faith is a choice about where we put our trust and confidence.

Fact or illusion?

It’s a simple choice.

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